Microsoft makes bold move, pundits take tired swipes

Microsoft Surface tablets may or may not be amazing, or amazingly different. But already it feels like nobody is happy.

I recently launched a weekly podcast, In Beta, with software developer, Lifehacker founding editor, and good friend Gina Trapani. In our last episode, we talked about the “Nice try, Lame-osoft” reaction to the announcement of the Surface tablet. It’s entirely expected, but at the same time truly disheartening. I thought I should expand on why.

I hold these tech hardware truths as self-evident: the iPhone and iPad are hugely profitable and popular, Microsoft is a huge company that makes a lot of public mistakes lately, and other tablet makers’ attempts thus far to unseat the iPad have been, in retrospect, greatly underpowered. The Surface, though, is a truly bold move by Microsoft, not an attempt to catch some me-too revenue or confuse its existing customer base into believing their product can do everything, and everything as well, as that massively profitable Apple product they won’t mention during the announcement.

Microsoft is directly competing with its Windows-licensing, device-making partners, and putting remarkable effort into designing and optimizing, as they put it in their presentation, every last nanometer of their tablet. They’re also loading their first tablet with the just the Metro interface, their very new and entirely fresh take on launching and managing apps. And rather than try to create a tablet that seeks to peel off a portion of the iPad market, they’re going after a market segment with the attention-getting keyboard covers. They want the people who want to be able to write out longer emails, documents, and presentations comfortably, without having to carry around both a tablet for casual use and enjoyment, and a separate laptop for the real productivity. It’s a familiar segment to Microsoft, and profitable.

And in many ways, Microsoft has no choice. Even John Gruber, no knee-jerk Microsoft defender he, thinks Microsoft made the best move it could make, even if it was kind of the only move left.

Microsoft, like Google, cannot rely on manufacturers and cellular carriers obsessed with razor-thin manufacturing profit margins to deliver the kind of experience that Microsoft knows is possible with Windows 8 on a tablet. Apple releases one tablet at a time that works to its specifications, with one version of its software. Even if Microsoft is seeking to differentiate from the iPad, it wants that kind of purchase experience for its customers: “I want this kind of computer, so I’ll buy it.” The Surface is a big part of Microsoft’s plans for its Microsoft Store. Why pretend to be an art gallery curator, constantly having to cajole and curry favor among all the many makers of Windows-running devices out there, when you can use your prime retail space instead to show off the prime selling point for what you see as the future of productive computing?

All this is to say that I find it remarkable, and sad (Sadmarkable?) that the talk around the Surface has quickly devolved into the usual Spec-Then-Snark pattern. Unnamed sources claim it will cost $600? Doomed. Wi-Fi only? Sunk. No Angry Birds announced? Pfah.

Microsoft Surface may or may not feel amazing to people, particularly people who have been waiting to switch from tablet to traditional typing. But already nobody is happy. Bah.

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